I’m Still Courtney from the (Eastern) Block: Belarus, Lithuania, & the Border Between

Though you’re probably not fooled by the rocks that I got, the list of Eastern European countries which Elliot and I have visited keeps growing.  A few months ago, we saw that flights to Vilnius, Lithuania were super cheap for the bank holiday at the end of May; we’ve heard from more than one person that Vilnius is beautiful, so we decided to book them.  We realized shortly after booking that we weren’t all that far from Belarus, where one of our good friends, Ryan, (of Imperial Wars and Pub Tours fame) was studying at the University of Minsk.  He had received a government scholarship to study Russian in a Russian-speaking country for a year, and he ended up in Belarus.  Now, if you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never gone to Belarus. You may even be muttering to yourself, “Shit….I thought that was part of Russia…”

Wait? So it’s NOT part of Russia?

Why is that, you ask?  Well, their government, led by President Lukashenko, still has some Soviet lingerings (state owned businesses, press censorship, and an authoritarian rule), and Lukashenko has been called “the last dictator in Europe”.  Not exactly a compliment given Europe’s history with dictators.  If you’re interested in learning more about this guy, I found this article to be really helpful.  Anyway, as a result of the governmental situation, Belarus is pretty closed off to the world, and it’s super difficult for people to get in and out of the country.  For foreigners to get a visa, you need a letter of introduction from a Belarusian citizen along with a copy of their passport.  If it’s hard for Belarusians to get out of their country, and hard for foreigners to get in, when they hell are the two going to cross paths??? Enter Ryan.

Since he had been in Belarus for seven months at the time of our trip, and fluent in Russian, he had made some good Belarusian friends.  He asked his friend Nastia to write a letter for us and provide a copy of her passport.  She graciously agreed, and all we needed to do was go to the Embassy with our paperwork.  After hearing Ryan’s horror stories of trying to get a multi-exit visa, El and I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.  We read, and reread the application for a visa, and made sure that we had crossed all our t’s and dotted all our lower-case j’s.  In order to apply for a visa, we needed the completed application (done in all caps, as we realized after already filling it half in and having to start over), the letter of introduction and passport, proof that we’d purchased travel insurance during our stay, and proof of a hotel reservation.  After multiple trips to the depressing looking Belarusian embassy (It was only open 9:30-12:30 MTThF, and the lines were crazy long), and 180 British pounds later, our passports miraculously contained visas to enter Belarus.  Let’s get this crazy Eastern European party started!

Vilnius: Medieval cellars and stories of survival

Our flight to Vilnius was scheduled to take off around 5:45pm on Friday, but it ended up being two hours late.  Factor in that it takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to fly there, and Lithuania is two hours ahead of London, and we didn’t end up landing in Vilnius until midnight.  Fortunately, border patrol wasn’t too crowded, and we were able to get a cab right outside of the Parthenon-esque airport terminal.  It was the first of many buildings in Vilnius whose architecture was designed in the shape of an ancient Greek temple.  Very strange.  Anyway, I had been in communication with our hotel, the Hotel Atrium, so we fortunately didn’t lose our reservation.  As we drove the fifteen minutes to Old Town Vilnius, we were amazed by all the churches on our route that were brightly lit up and standing out against the black sky.  Once we got into the heart of Old Town, where we were staying, there were still tons of people milling about, despite it being almost 1am.  I’m not talking like they were all going out to party; there were people walking with backpacks like they were coming from the library and people just hanging out.  The whole area was also very medieval with cobblestone streets and big stone archways.

We got to our hotel and the cab driver didn’t have change for El’s 50.  Elliot had to run across the street to an open bar and get some take-away beer b/c it was the only place open nearby.  Once that was settled, we checked into our room at the Hotel Atrium and settled in for the night.  The hotel itself was in this old medieval style building with wide chambers and everything made of stone.  Despite the charming location, the room was a bit lacking.  Our room had a musty smell to it, the carpeted floor felt gross, and the sink clogged while we were there.  The shower did have a “take off your skin” water pressure, so I guess 1/4 aint bad.  It was almost 1:15 at this point, so we tried our Lithuanian “craft” beers (a decent pale ale and a gross Belgian double) before settling in to bed.  We had to catch a 6:20am train to Minsk the next morning, so we tried to catch some zzz’s before out 5am wakeup call….

We woke up fresh as a daisy that next morning and happily made our train on time… Just kidding!  At 8:30 the next morning, we awoke with a start and realized that El’s alarm had been set to weekdays only.  We furiously tried to figure out how the hell we were going to now get to Minsk, as transportation options were limited.  We re-game planned our trip, decided to have breakfast and then go to the bus station to see what our options were.  Breakfast was a continental buffet in the cellar and looked like something out of a medieval great hall, complete with a suit of armor at one end.  We had these crepes with ham cheese, some slices of bread and cheese, and a hard-boiled egg.  The food was decent, but we weren’t expecting anything all too mind-blowing.

Burning them if they’re not quick and nimble. I go crazy when I hear a cymbal

Outside of our hotel, here was a guy and girl in Lithuanian dress playing an accordion and a drum with cymbal.  They were pretty spritely for 9 in the morning on a Saturday, and the music was toe-tappingly entertaining.  We walked through the Old Town to the bus station and bought an early afternoon bus ticket to Minsk.  The woman at the counter fortunately spoke English, so it made the process easy, but that didn’t stop us from joking about how shitty the bus was probably going to be.

We then took a B.O. filled cab to the Museum of Genocide Victims on the northern part of town.  Outside the building was a memorial, covered in red and white flowers, that listed the names of Lithuanians who had died under Soviet rule.  Beside the memorial out front, the museum itself was in a non-descript building that you’d probably pass by without knowing what it was.  That’s probably because it’s housed in the old Gestapo and later KGB headquarters.  The museum exhibits were built to accompany was left from those eras, so the hallways were still a depressing shade of green.

Exhibit from the Museum of Genocide Victims

The museum itself was very moving and really made an effort to highlight the individual stories of those who suffered under the Nazi and then Soviet rules.  The exhibits were filled with pictures of people and their personal effects next to stories of their heroism.  There were stories of the Brothers in the Forest, the Partisan Freedom Fighters, and a timeline of the resistance efforts made by the Lithuanians.

After moving through the exhibits on the victims, we went up a flight of stairs to the old KGB offices.  They were left as they were, equipment and all, and there were sounds of “activity” playing, so you felt like you were really in the offices.  You could hear typewriters clacking and telephone calls being listened to.  There was a listening room and a room that had KGB leaders’ photos, uniforms, and ribbons.  After reading the stories of all the Lithuanians killed by all these people smiling in the photos, I could feel myself getting angry at the injustice of it all.

Shhhhh you don’t know who’s listening!

Our next stop was the basement, where the cells were “divided” into the time immediately following WWII (including a cell for Jewish prisoners), the Soviet era, and resistance cells.  There was a holding “area” that was about the size of a phone booth, where prisoners would wait for hours on end in the freezing cold while being processed.  We were able to walk into some of the cells, but most were roped off and preserved as they were when people lived there.  The cells were what you would expect from the KGB: dark, dingy, overcrowded, and purposefully uncomfortable.  There was understandably a very somber atmosphere to this floor, and you could only imagine how horrible it must have been for the prisoners there.  We walked past the latrine and washing room to the execution chamber, located outside in a separate chamber.  If the prison area was somber, the execution room was downright terrifying.  We walked across a glass floor that had sand, sawdust, and empty shoes scattered throughout it.  There were plaques on the wall that detailed the sentencing to execution process, but everything was in Lithuanian so we just had to go off the pictures.  There was an antechamber that had a video playing of a re-enactment of an execution with loud gunshots occasionally scaring me out of my skin, and glass panels that covered the bullet holes in the wall.  Despite it being a small museum, it did a great job of really driving home to its visitors the horrible conditions in which the Lithuanian people had to live.

We walked back to Cathedral Square after the museum and I surmised that Lithuanians love coffee b/c we must’ve passed 1,000 coffee shops on the way.  Cathedral Square is huge, and the cathedral itself is this massive, white and modern looking church with humongous statues on top.  I’m talking like 10 ft tall statues.  As we approached our hotel, there were street market vendors who had all sorts of amber jewelry, wooden items, clothes, and souvenirs set out.  The weather was beautiful, and everyone was taking advantage; the streets were already full of people walking around and enjoying the sunshine.

Strolling around Vilnius

We quickly checked out of our hotel, caught a cab to the bus station, and stopped in a grocery store and got some snacks for the road.  We got two keptas, a Lithuanian national dish that is like a denser Spanish tortilla, from the deli, some nuts, beer, and a cookie for the ride.  Finding our correct platform was like bus roulette because the signs were all in Lithuanian; fortunately, “Minsk” looks pretty much the same in most languages, and there weren’t any other buses going there at the time.  While we waited, we ate our keptas, which were tasty but cold.  I’m sure they would’ve been REALLY good just out of the fryer.  I used the bathroom in the station as our departure time neared, and it was like something from American Horror Story:  I had to pay 40 Euro cents to pee in a bathroom that was pitch black with no toilet paper.  I half expected someone grinding sausage out of a leg.

Border Patrol

When our bus came, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it was pretty pimped out! Not only did we get a free bottle of water from the Russian lady who checked our tickets, but the air conditioning actually worked AND there was free WiFi.  Neither the bus driver nor the Russian ticket collector/water distributor spoke English, and it became pretty apparent that no one else on the bus did either.  We got on the road right on time and settled in for our 4-hour journey to Minsk.

When we were looking at the bus option, we were dumbfounded as to how a bus ride would take 4 hours when Google Maps said driving would only take two.  Well, we learned why after driving for 40 minutes and reaching the Lithuanian border.  As we approached, we drove past a line of trucks at least a mile long waiting to get through border patrol.  The line was so long that drivers had their legs hanging out the window while they slept and waited.  El and I estimated that it would take at least 24 hours for them to make it through the border.  I’d quit my job if I had to do that.

Our bus drove up to this little station (was more like a kiosk), stopped, and the driver got off.  No instructions were given, but a few people would occasionally get off the bus and go to the border agent window.  We had no clue what to do, so we waited for a while and watched out the window.  We saw more people get off our bus and get in line, so we decided to do the same.  We waited about 30 minutes before having our passports stamped with a little car in the corner instead of an airplane, our first one.  Once everyone on the bus had their passport stamped (about an hour later), we climbed back onto the bus along with a border agent who counted heads and looked everyone over.  She got off, and we then drove about half a kilometer to the Belarus border patrol.  There was no mistake what to do now, and everyone filed off the bus with their bags.  We took everyone’s cue and grabbed our bags and got off the bus.  It was the moment of truth after all the planning and waiting, and I’d be lying if I didn’t have some Russian bears on unicycles riding  in my stomach.  As we approached, I also took notice of the uber fortified border gates with guard towers almost hidden in the trees.

This way to bears on unicycles

The border agent woman was a heavily made up young girl who was scary looking as hell, but I think that was mostly due to the fact I thought she’d send me to the gulag for a crime I didn’t commit or didn’t know I committed.  I handed her my passport, open to the visa page, she looked at it and motioned to a piece of paper.  I shook my head, and she shoved a slip through the window and pointed to the end of the line.  Since El and I were basically at the end of it anyway, I didn’t have to wait long after filling out the migrant card.  She looked at my passport, looked at her computer, looked at my passport, looked at me, looking at the computer, and finally stamped it to let me through.  I then got into another line and had to open up my bags their contents to that border agent.  He just stood with his hands behind his back and grunted, which I understand is Russian for “sweet underpants”.

We got back in the bus and officially were in Belarus; the whole process took about an hour and a half, which explains the 4-hour bus ride.  As we drove to Belarus, I was amazed by what a bright green country it was: heavily forested with lots of fields along the way.  At the two stops we made, we were struck by how western everything looked.  I don’t know what we were expecting once we crossed the border:  women in babushkas or the music from Hunt for the Red October playing or something.  Despite the western look of the towns and people, absolutely nothing was in English so you knew you weren’t at home.  The only things I understood were the signs along the road that told the speed limit, time, and temperature, which I thought was just genius.

Minsk:  Presenting Tsarina Katarina

We made it!

As we entered Minsk, there were plenty of Soviet reminders of where we were: there was a hammer and sickle symbol on this huge apartment/business building across from the train station, and the architecture in general was very Stalinist in appearance.  We got off at the bus/train station and met Barrett who was already waiting for us with a bottle of Belarusian vodka.  Our first order of business was to exchange our pounds for rubles, so we found this currency exchange/pod chamber in the train station.  There were two windows, and maybe four people could stand inside.  Ryan did the translating, and soon Elliot had two enormous wads of cash in his hands.  Like a cartoony amount of money.  So the prices are so inflated in Belarus that 20,000 rubles equals just $1.  Ryan was telling us that people just throw away the $100 and $500 bills because they’re basically worthless; I guess that happens when your currency is worth like 1% of a cent.  We didn’t know how much money we’d need for the trip, so we brought 400 pounds with us.  Yeah…we walked away from the currency exchange with 10,000,000 rubles.  It will probably be the only time in our lives where we were millionaires.

Frank Lloyd Wright, they ain’t

We took a cab (with a driver who was delighted/amazed that we were Americans) to our Airbnb, and I started having second thoughts about the service when I saw the dilapidated building in which we’d be staying.  Barrett reassured me that a lot of buildings in Minsk look run down, but the inside is really nice.  Despite the depressing stairwell we climbed, he was absolutely right.  The apartment was baller: super clean, big, and with two balconies that allowed a nice breeze to come in.  It was also in a perfect location, despite being directly across from the Secret Service, which is kind of intimidating.  We met Elena, the apartment owner and super friendly, and Barrett translated for us.  After she left us the keys, we all did a shot of Belarusian vodka chased with Fun Fun! orange drink.  As expected, that shit puts hair on your chest.

We took our passports with us because apparently the police can stop you and demand to see your papers at any moment.  The fuck kinda place have we gotten ourselves into?  Our first stop was Old Town, which actually wasn’t old.  During WWII, the Nazis completely leveled Minsk with bombs; only five buildings in the entire city, including the brewery because the Nazi soldiers wanted to brew their own beer, survived the bombing.  I can’t even imagine the resolve of the Belarusian people to completely rebuild their home from scratch.  Part of that rebuilding included reconstructing Old Town square as it looked before the war.  So the buildings look like they’re a few hundred years old, but none are older than the 20th century.

“Old” Town Square

There was a street market next to our first stop, Gambrinus, and everyone was out enjoying the beautiful, sunny yet breezy, weather.  I bought a magnet that was on a piece of hand painted wood bark from one of the stalls, and we all sat back at Gambrinus with a Belarusian beer.  The beer was a typical pilsner style: nothing too fancy but satisfying none the less.  It was great to catch up with Barrett and hear about what his life in Belarus has been like.  One of the biggest differences between Americans and Belarusians is that the latter are scared to challenge authority.  Barrett  had to stop Elliot from jaywalking because even that is highly frowned upon.

Minsk along the “river”

After our drink, we walked along the “river” (it was more like a lake) on which people were riding paddle boats and canoeing.  On our way to dinner, we passed an Orthodox church where a service was ongoing, and we heard this almost manic bell playing.  Barrett goes “There’s a woman in that tower!”, and we looked up and saw a woman in the bell tower PLAYING THE BELLS LIKE THEY WERE DRUMS.  She was like the Ringo Starr of church bells, and she was so fast that it was almost hypnotic to watch her.

Our next stop was a Belarusian restaurant that Barrett promised offered traditional Belarusian food.  We always try to eat the cuisine of the countries in which we’re visiting, so that was a must for us.  We sat al fresco alongside the river and talked while drinking our Alivariya and Lidskoya beers.  Barrett’s friend and fellow student, Sziland (See-lard), joined us shortly after as well as an older woman named Mary from Boston.  She was on a trip through the Baltic and overheard us speaking American English.  She joined us for a beer and told us about the interesting trip she was on.  She was very friendly and gave us her card to visit her in Boston.  Szilard was a super happy and laughing Hungarian guy who, after completing his fellowship in Minsk, is going to school at the University of Glasgow before studying in Prague.  That’s one hell of an international resume.

Mmmmm solyanka

We trusted Barrett to order for us, and we all shared draniki, which is a Belarusian potato pancake, some meat wrapped in cabbage, solyanka, this lemony soup that I basically ate by myself, and one slice of bread that the restaurant had cut in half.  That’s the Communist spirit.  We didn’t eat that much, and Elliot wasn’t all that impressed with the food.  I was a big fan of the solyanka (obviously), but the draniki and meat-cabbage (wish I had a more eloquent name) weren’t anything too outrageous.

After finishing our meal, we said goodbye to Mary (who later joined a rowdy group of British lads on a stag party) and walked to the nearby Isle of Tears.  There lies a memorial to Belarusian soldiers who died in Afghanistan.  There are several statues and stones that have plaques engraved with the Cyrillic names of Afghan locations.  It was a pretty moving memorial, and good on the Belarusians for honoring them that way.

One of the stones at the Isle of Tears

We walked along the river, past what they pointed out was possibly Lukashenko’s house, to a nearby hookah bar.  The Champions League final was starting soon, and Szilard and Elliot both wanted to watch it.  We sat ourselves at an outside table in sight of the TV and got a watermelon hookah for the group.  Shortly after arriving there, Barrett and Szilard’s other friend, Roman, joined us.  Roman is Belarusian but speaks flawless English.  He mentioned that he was also trying to learn Spanish, so I dusted off my lingua skills and tried to talk to him in Spanish.

It wasn’t long before the bar filled up with groups of young people watching the game.  There were also these two old guys sitting at the table next to us who kept looking at our group.  They held out a bar of dark chocolate to me, which I politely declined with “No spasibo”.  Don’t pass off your roofie chocolate on me, old man.  They kept offering though, and one guy broke off and ate a piece himself, so I finally took a square.  I promptly dropped it right on my shorts, where to this day there’s still a stain.  The two guys then got Barrett and Szilard to translate for them and kept telling me that they liked me and I was very beautiful.  They kept repeating that (and variations of that) and nicknamed me Tsarina Katarina.  I don’t know what it is about non-English language speakers and my name; they just have a hard time pronouncing Courtney; maybe it’s the “or” part in the middle?  Anyway, the two old guys gave up attempting pretty quickly and, by doing so, made me royalty.  That’s right, bitches: ROYALTY.  They soon got pretty rowdy, and this group of young Belarusian guys kept telling us to “shut the fuck up”.  Apparently, this is a common thing and isn’t seen as totally offensive.  Well, my antiquated suitors didn’t shut the fuck up, and we got yelled at a few more times.  Old Men River then insisted on buying us vodka shots, despite us really not wanting them, and soon we were cheering “Nasdrovia” with these guys who looked like they normally walk around in dirty wife-beaters and suspenders.

El’s just showing his amazed face at me being crowned Tsarina

Despite my new boyfriends, we had a lot of fun watching the game, and Szilard kept teasing me about loving Fernando Torres.  Because I kinda do… He’s since cut his hair, but there’s something about a dude in a headband…Anyway, after the game ended we decided to go to one of the boys’ favorite bars, so we walked to this place that was like an attic (No, not that attic).  I may have started to feel the effects of the vodka shot, but it seemed like we were on the roof of a building, so that’s what I’m going with.  The bouncer, however, wouldn’t let us in at first because Elliot was wearing his Cortezes.  After an initial protest from Szilard, and some stealthy negotiating by Barrett, the guy relented and let the party enter.

The bar itself was set up like a house, with couches on which to lounge and shelves of books along the walls.  There was a DJ playing and a lit up dance floor which Barrett and Szilard quickly joined.  Roman and I talked about books and Rome and people watched.  Since it was Eastern Europe, there were plenty of beautiful women with perfect bodies, and most were dressed to kill.  After a few drink there, we took a cab to a German style beer hall to meet up with another of Barrett’s friends, Nick.  When we left the attic bar, I was ready to call it a night but then I came to my senses, said, “I’m in Belarus”, bucked up, and stayed out with the boys.

Nick (who Barrett had mentioned earlier was showing up at 2am..which he did…earning the nickname “2am Nick” from us) and a huge group of dudes wearing t-shirts that were meant to look like traditional Belarusian dress; one of whom looked just like Joakim Noah.  We all sat around this big table and ordered some chicken tenders that were seriously clutch in the moment.  We also ordered this meat platter that, the next day, only I remembered ordering.  We were all talking and having beers when this English speaking Belarusian showed up at our table and wanted to start talking American politics.  Barrett recognized him as a guy who had interviewed him previously, and said he was a total prick who tried to tell Ryan what it’s like to be American.  Barrett told us that was a pretty common experience for him, and that he’d experience a number of confrontational, anti-foreigner Belarusians who believed they knew more about being American than an actual American.  Uh, I sincerely doubt YOU have a Ben Franklin fighting Zeus tank top, Belarusian reporter guy.

The beer hall was closing soon, so we headed back to the apartment for, to use a college term, “after hours”.  The boys wanted to stay out, and I said I wanted to join them, but Barrett (he didn’t remember this the next day) flat out refused and said I was staying home.  Anyways, the boys and I hung out, and then the boys drank vodka before going out for another drink.  Since I was banned, I ended up going to bed.  The bed was pretty comfortable, and the breeze going through the balcony window made for a very pleasant sleep.

We all woke up at 9:15, got our shit together, and walked to a nearby McDonald’s for some food.  It was a super fancy McDonald’s, and Barrett said how people go to McDonald’s for nicer lunches in Belarus.  Must be a “KFC on Valentine’s Day” type of thing.  As we were waiting to order, they transitioned to the lunch menu (at only 10am).  I went upstairs to find us a table, and Elliot left Barrett with the instruction to order us “trays of food!”  Well, he took the message to heart and came to our table with five Big Mac’s, four fries, a 9 piece McNugget, a hamburger “gyro”, a caprese salad, drinks, and a partridge in a pear tree.  Neither Elliot nor I had ever had a Big Mac before, so I guess it’s a helluva story to have our first one in Belarus of all places.  It was a seriously gluttonous meal, yet we ate almost all of it.

We needed a serious walk after all that food, so we strolled the mile or so to Victory Square, where there is a guarded eternal flame and memorial.  Before we left, Barrett had stuffed a vodka bottle into Elliot’s backpack, and it came crashing out while we were walking.  It shattered all over the sidewalk, and we all kinda froze for a moment.  I made a move to pick up the pieces, but Barrett just goes, “Go go! Just keep walking.  No one will think anything of it because there are always empty bottles on the ground”.  Given all he had told us of the Belarusian police, I thought for sure someone was going to arrest us.

Victory Square in Minsk

On the way, we passed what Barrett told us was the “biggest circus in Belarus”.  Apparently the circus is a super big thing in Belarus, so the whole “bears on unicycles” joke is actually not that far from reality.  Victory Square had a huge obelisk that told the story of WWII’s impact on Belarus and was beautifully decorated with flowers.  There were teenagers, who we surmised to be JROTC kids, guarding the eternal flame.  They must’ve been dying in the heat, so it was even more impressive that they stood at attention there.

After walking around the square a bit, and stopping in a souvenir shop, we went to a place nearby called “Beerja” to kill some time before meeting Nastia for lunch.  After a beer that was difficult to go down, we met her at this medieval looking place called Gunvald.  Surprisingly, there were English parts of the menu, and the music playing was streaming from a website called “Smooth Jazz” Super odd.  Even though we weren’t that hungry, we still ordered borsch because you HAVE to order borsch in Belarus.  It’d be like going to Moscow and not dressing slutty.  Borsch ended up being pretty tasty, and Elliot and I sopped it up with some bread and draniki.  With the bread came these “sticks” of animal fat.  Barrett told us how Belarusian men spread the fat on their bread, which is one of the grossest cuisine habits that I could imagine.  Speaking of guys, some drunk older guy came up to Barrett and tried to pick a fight with him, saying stuff like “f**k your mother”.  Barrett, being the sensible guy he is, stayed chill and started talking with the guy in Russian.  Eventually the guy gave Barrett a fist pound before walking away.  Ryan explained that he was pissed because we were all speaking English and were foreigners in his country.  I shit you not.  Not the friendliest guy.

Someone who was incredibly friendly, however, was Ryan’s friend, Nastia, the same girl who wrote the letter that allowed us to get visas.  It was really nice to meet her, and we let her know she’s welcome anytime in London.  Nastia is a doctor who talked a little bit about how she’d like to move to Sweden to be with her sister; she’s actually in the process of learning Swedish, which is pretty cool.  While we ate, Elena, the apartment owner, showed up and gave us some refund money she owed us (long story).  So despite the surly guy from lunch, we had pretty good experiences with Belarusians.

Off to the Gulag

Our bus was leaving soon, so Ryan and Nastia walked us to the station and helped us exchange our currency.  So we brought £400 with us, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  We paid for every tab, including ones where we were in a big group, and we still only spent £250.  Goes to show you how cheap it is to visit Belarus (minus the initial visa fee).  Barrett sprinted ahead of us and picked us up a bottle of Belarusian vodka and Fun Fun! to have on the bus, even though that was the last thing in the world I wanted.  The bus was again a really comfortable one, and we fell asleep for a while on the ride.  Just before the border, we woke up and each took a swig of the vodka.  A swig.  Singular.  Because I almost puked when I did mine, which I took as a sign from my body to slow my f**king role.

The contraband that got us in a world of trouble at the border

As we neared the border, we had the same routine of an agent getting on the bus and counting the number of people present.  The line of trucks was almost longer going into Lithuania than leaving, and we soon found out it was because there was only one Belarusian border agent for everyone.  It took forever for us to get through the passport control line, but this time they didn’t go through everyone’s bags.  We then got back on the bus and drove the short distance to the Lithuanian passport control.  We again had to take all our bags off the bus, and we debated whether or not we needed to take our snacks and vodka bottle with us.  Elliot said to just leave it, and that it wouldn’t be a big deal.

To get into Lithuania, you have to stop at TWO border agent windows, so we yet again had a wait on our hands.  As we were standing there, there was this loud commotion behind us and we heard people shouting.  The shouting grew increasingly louder before  our bus driver suddenly barged into the room, shouting in Russian.  We recognized “wodka”, and instantly knew what caused the commotion.  To almost prove his point, and make us feel more awkward, he made a bottle pantomime with his hands.  A lady who sat across from us on the bus immediately pointed to us, and Elliot had to go with the driver and a border agent to collect the bottle.  It was like something out of a Soviet era movie, and on the exterior I was calm, but inside I was freaking the hell out.

Fortunately, El was able to charm the Lithuanian border lady, and she (smiling now) politely told us that the one bottle was okay and asked if we were also bringing cigarettes into the country.  After everyone had gone through passport control, we got back onto the bus, glared at the snitch across the aisle, and went the rest of the journey to Vilnius without incident.

Old Town: Lincoln Logs and one helluva view

Old Town Vilnius at night

When we got into Vilnius, we walked from the bus station to our BB in Old Town, the Bernardinu BB and dropped off our stuff.  Our room was the attic room (I’m sensing a theme here…) which was super adorable and clean.  Old Town was bustling in the early evening, and there was definitely a lot more things written in English than we saw that morning.  Old Town was really appealing and beautiful; even the shops were like medieval cellars!  We had dinner at this LP recommended place, Loky’s, which I guess has been a “hunter’s restaurant” for the past few hundred years.  In fact, it’s nicknamed the Bear restaurant and is one of the oldest in Vilnius.  The weather was beautiful (low 70’s), so we outside in a courtyard that was already filled with people.  Everywhere you looked, you saw “bear” stuff, so they were definitely committed to this theme.

Our waitress gave us some hot rolls and brown bread while we looked at the menu.  We also learned that Lithuanians aren’t perpetually sneezing, their “thank you” just sounds like one (achoo).  We ordered the “snacks for beer” platter, which came with “cheese doughnuts”, salami, cured pig ear (!), and this fried bread that they had stacked like Lincoln logs.  We tried the pig ear out of morbid curiosity, but it had such a funky texture that one bite was all we could handle.  The fried bread, on the other hand, was just as delicious as it sounds.  For our entree, Elliot got this pork that was in a tarragon/oregano wine sauce and absolutely delicious.  I had this beef and venison stew that was served in a spinach-mashed potato “bowl”.  Since we were gluttonous, we also ordered these fried potato balls that were stuffed with game meat and served with mushrooms.  Everyting was really delicious and was only 44 euros.  Considering this was the first real “meal” (McDonald’s doesn’t count) we’d had in a few days, we made the most of it.

A fried bread house for the cheese doughnuts?

It was still light outside when we finished eating at 9:40, so we walked across the river to the Uzupio Gatve neighborhood to find a Lithuanian craft beer place called Spunka.  After a few wrong turns, we ended up in this cool, small place with lots of wood, chalkboards, and hipsters drinking beer.  I had a Simkala and Elliot had a Lithuanian stout, and they both were actually pretty good.  Around us were people “ballroom dancing” to music that didn’t really suit the situation and kept knocking over bar stools.  El and I were exhausted from our marathon travel weekend, so we walked back to the BB after just our one drink.  The weather was beautiful, so with the windows open we slept like a rock.

Old Town Vilnius

The next morning, we got up early and walked up Gediminas Hill.  We were the only ones up there, so we had completely unobstructed views of both the Old and New Cities.  The weather was again perfect, so the rust colored roofs popped really popped against the blue sky.  Vilnius is a really beautiful city, and the view from Gediminas Hill reminded me of looking down on Prague.  Back at the BB, our host knocked on our door and gave us a picnic basket filled with bread, yogurt, cheese, deli meats, coffee, and orange juice.  It was a cute little breakfast for a cute little BB.  Shortly after finishing breakfast, we had to check out and head back to London.  Our flight was again delayed two hours, but at least it wasn’t midnight when we landed.

Gediminas Tower

Although Belarus wasn’t as beautiful as Vilnius, it was definitely an experience visiting Minsk; one that few people we know will probably have.  I do highlight recommend checking out Vilnius though, as it’s beautiful, reasonably priced, and there’s quite a bit to do there.  If you do decide to visit Eastern Europe, just make sure you don’t leave your vodka bottle on the bus…
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Filed under:
Belarus, Eastern Europe, Ex Pat Life, Hidden Gems, History, Lithuania, Minsk, Travel, Vilnius

Belarus, Eastern Europe, ExPat Life, history, Lithuania, Minsk, sightseeing, travel, vacation, Vilnius